Sunday, December 5, 2021

The theta clause

This post would have come a lot sooner if I could just have figured out what to call it. English-language linguistics typically refers to these as headless relative clauses or indirect questions, but that's begging the question: there's no reason to start out with the assumption that what's actually happening in Koa must map onto a relative clause or a question. I'm going to be bold and use "theta clause" because these structures are sort of meta-encoding a thematic role; since that's not a term anyone would understand out of the box, though, you can substitute with "nominal clauses" if you want!

These have been an albatross for most of Kea's existence, an endless source of confusion and discouragement. Until 2021 I just couldn't really even approach the problem of how to express something as seemingly basic as

I don't know what you want

Somehow I instinctively steered wide of the most obvious seemed like maybe a structure that felt that comfortable was making too many assumptions. The Polish, for example, would be

nie wiem, co chcesz
NEG know-1SG what want-2SG
"I don't know what you want"

The Koa calque of this would be

ni na ilo kea sa se halu
1SG NEG know what FOC 2SG want

Hungarian does something similar but precedes the embedded clause with a complementizer:

nem tudom, hogy mit akarsz
NEG know-1SG COMP what-ACC want-2SG

This would calque as

ni na ilo ko kea sa se halu
1SG NEG know COMP what FOC 2SG want

Was that better? Who knew? I think maybe what argued caution was that I wasn't at all sure I understood what was really going on here; given the fact that question words haven't ever been a part of relative clause structure in Koa, why suddenly pull them in just to address this complication? This corner of syntax rested in abeyance until this year, with yet another Nahuatl intervention.

Nahuatl produces these kinds of clauses just as elegantly and effortlessly as any other NP, and in the same way:

in cihuātl
DEF woman
"the woman"

ca cochi in cihuātl
DECL sleep-3SG DEF woman
"the woman is sleeping"

in cochi
DEF sleep-3SG
"the one sleeping, who is sleeping"

ca cihuātl in cochi
DECL woman DEF sleep-3SG
"the one sleeping is a woman"

in cihuātl in cochi
DEF woman DEF sleep-3SG
"the sleeping woman, the woman who is sleeping"

Koa works extremely similarly to Nahuatl in its predicates' ability to assume any syntactic position ("lexical class," if you must), and in fact all of these translate seamlessly into Koa:

ka mina
DEF woman
"the woman"

ka mina i nuku
DEF woman VP sleep
"the woman is sleeping"

ka nuku
DEF sleep
"the one sleeping"

ka nuku i mina
DEF sleep VP woman
"the one sleeping is a woman"

ka mina nuku
DEF woman sleep
"the sleeping woman, the woman who is sleeping"

If we can do all this, and in fact our ability to do all this is foundational to the grammar of Koa, that presumably means we can also say

ni na ilo ka nuku
1SG NEG know DEF sleep
"I don't know who's sleeping"

Note that this does not mean "I don't know the sleeping woman": that would be a different verb of knowing which, embarrassingly enough, I still haven't picked out -- savoir vs connaître. Anyway, none of this is controversial, really, I just wasn't clear before that I could use these structures this way!

Let's take a look at how this works in different syntactic positions. Core slots -- subject and object -- are extremely simple:

ni na ilo [ka ma puhu] he tisena (subject)
1SG NEG know DEF IMPF speak TIME this-now
"I don't know who's speaking right now"

ni na ilo [ka ta ma sano] he tisena (object)
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG IMPF say TIME this-now
"I don't know what he's saying right now"

Now, if someone really wanted to interpret these as headless relatives, they could imagine that there's gapping going on here underlyingly, like

ka Ø ma puhu "the oneᵢ that Øᵢ is speaking"
ka ta ma sano Øᵢ "the thingᵢ that he is saying Øᵢ"

I think that's trying unnecessarily hard to frame Koa grammar in a IE-compliant way, though. Maybe the trees have invisible arrows and maybe they don't, but the way it feels to a Koa speaker is that ma puhu or ta ma sano can be used as adjectives just like any other predicate or predicate complex: so ka sao "the right one," ka ma puhu "the speaking one," ka ta ma sano "the him-saying one."

The reason I don't think relative clauses are the right way to think of these is what happens in oblique positions. How would you say "I know where you live"?

First of all, you can probably throw formal grammatical relations to the wind and just say this, letting the hearer reassemble the semantic role from obvious context:

ni ilo ka se asu
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell
"I know the you-living one" = "I know where you live"

If you do actually definitely want to overtly include that "location" semantic, though, I might expect to see one of these if these structures are really relative clauses:

ni ilo ka se asu ne Ø (gapping)
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell LOC

ni ilo ka se asu ne ta (pronoun retention)
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell LOC 3SG

The thing is, I don't think either of those are acceptable Koa! The most neutral, least marked Koa phrasing actually uses one of those ke-compounds to recover the missing semantic role:

ni ilo kene se asu
1SG know location 2SG dwell
"I know where you live"

There's a really strong urge to interpret kene above as performing a relative function exactly analogous to that of where in the English translation, but that is not what's going on here. Kene is a noun, not an adverb, and so the more literal English rendering of the Koa phrase would be "I know the location of your living." Here are some other examples:

ni na ilo kepe ta ma puhu
1SG NEG know topic 3SG IMPF speak
"I don't know the subject of his speaking" = "I don't know what he's talking about"

ai se ilo keo ve ka pasuo se i tule
QU 2SG know origin MOD DEF PASS-eat 2SG VP come
"do you know the origin of your food's coming?" = "do you know where your food comes from?"

This would actually be much more neutral without come, as

ai se ilo keo ka pasuo se
"do you know the origin of your food?" = "do you know where your food comes from?"

The Koa clauses are often somewhat more syntactically economical than the English in this way.

ni co na ilo keci ni cu ata la
1SG still NEG know means 1SG IRR arrive DAT
"I still don't know the means of my arriving there" = "I don't know yet how I'm going to get there"

NB: the English glosses all have a definite object: "I don't know the subject of his speaking," etc. Shouldn't the Koa then be ni na ilo ka kepe ta ma puhu? No, in fact. I don't know how widespread this is, but in a lot of IE languages we have this thing where the head of a genitive phrase is required to be formally definite; in this kind of structure, though, there is in fact not a known, specific topic already on the discourse stage to be referred to with ka. What's really going on here is more subtle: kepe is the incorporated object of the verb ilo! In essence, we're saying "I don't origin-know his speaking." This is visible in other types of sentences where there's no clear verbal object:

ta ie ata he tana, ni na ilo keo
3SG just arrive TIME today, 1SG NEG know origin
"he just got here today, I don't know where from"

We can also see this in the Koa translation of "it matters where your food comes from": Notice that "the origin," when in subject position, is a po-phrase because it's entirely general/universal. That same meaning in object position is expressed by incorporation.

tava sa po keo ka pasuo se
matter FOC GEN origin DEF PASS-eat 2SG
"the origin of your food matters"

(Though I'm confident the Koa forms are correct, the above statement about definiteness marking is going to need some scrutiny in the future: either I'm painting with too broad a brush, which is entirely possible, or I've been misusing ka all over the place. For example, why is "my house" ka talo ni if it's not on the discourse stage yet? I think my understanding of what's really going on here needs to develop a bit in subtlety. Meanwhile, though, again, I think the Koa is right with respect to the topic under discussion.)

One thing I don't know -- and this is the case throughout the world of Koa dependent clauses -- is how we refer to possessors. How would we say "I don't know whose drink I'm holding"?

?ni na ilo ka ni lolo ka paípo ta
1SG NEG know DEF 1SG hold DEF PASS-drink 3SG

A minute ago I just confidently announced that pronoun retention is not used in Koa in these kinds of phrases, so apparently not.

?ni na ilo kela ni lolo paípo
1SG NEG know beneficiary 1SG hold DEF PASS-drink
"I don't know the destination of my drink-holding"

Okay, but then what we're literally saying is "I don't know who I'm holding this drink for," which is sort of sneakily avoiding the issue. The possessor is at the absolute bottom of the relativization hierarchy which is no doubt the reason this is turning out to be such a challenge. Maybe the way to do it is with a verb that means "own"; currently we have only the reverse, a verb that means "belong to." I suppose we could use a passive......?

?na ilo paoma ka paípo ni lolo
NEG know PASS-belong DEF PASS-drink 1SG hold
"I don't know the belonged-to one of the drink of my holding" =
"I don't know the owner of the drink I'm holding" = "I dunno whose drink I'm holding"

That might be respectable, if initially utterly counterintuitive! Let's let it stand for the time being.

There are a number of other types of theta clauses which, though unremarkable in their structure from a Koa standpoint, need to be pointed out because they're utterly different from their English counterparts. First, two more making use of object incorporation:

ni na ilo mea ta
1SG NEG know thing 3SG
"I don't know what it is"

ni na ilo noa ta
1SG NEG know name 3SG
"I don't know what his name is"

The other two use special verbs of being:

ni na ilo ka ta ila
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG be-like
"I don't know what set he's a member of," "I don't know what he's like"
(we've seen this one before)

ni na ilo ka ta imi
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG self
"I don't know who he is"

This last one is breaking some important new ground. It became clear when thinking about these kinds of structures that imi "self" at base really means "identity" (mathematical, not personal); as an adjective "equal, identical," or as a verb, "have identity with." Interestingly, in this single case, ka imi and ka pa imi would actually be the same thing, since either side of the triple bar is formally identical to the other! So niími means "myself," literally "my identical one."

In fact, we could express this sentence in at least three other ways whose semantic differences from the foregoing, if any, are pretty difficult to assess:

ni na ilo ka imi ta
1SG NEG know DEF identity 3SG
"I don't know what is identical to him" = "I don't know who he is"

ni na ilo imi ta
1SG NEG know identity 3SG
"I don't identity-know him" = "I don't know who he is"

or even

ni na ilo ta imi
1SG NEG know 3SG identity
"I don't know his identity" = "I don't know who he is"

I'm leaving that particular rabbit hole for some late-night philosophical discussion. What I do need to say before I sign off for today is that I think Koa may actually permit IE-style embedded questions after all, in a rather more marked way. In the interest of brevity I'll have to add this to the rapidly expanding docket of future topics to post about!

1 comment:

de cuup said...

I've mulled it over, and I believe I know what you're trying to do, but I think when you choose to conflate free relatives and (a subset of) indirect questions from the outset, you're
. limiting yourself (analysis and conclusions)
. pushing your "solution" in a certain direction (parlez-vous Français?)
. bound to get into trouble when you get to more complex indirect questions
(I would focus on FR's separately, and maybe look for possible connections with dependent clauses in general)